John Carpenter explains that the studio wanted to change the aliens in They Live from capitalists to cannibals.
John Carpenter was an absolute master of science fiction and horror films in the 1970s and 1980s, writing and directing movies like Halloween, Escape From New York, and They Live. That third movie is a biting critique of unrestrained capitalism, but Carpenter said in a recent interview with Variety that the studio heads didn’t like this story. They wanted John Carpenter to change They Live’s aliens from capitalists to cannibals.
“Yeah, I got some notes. (Laughs) Yeah, which I ignored completely, but they didn’t want the aliens to be capitalists. They wanted to gut the whole movie. ‘Why don’t you make them cannibals from outer space?’ It was just ridiculous. But anyway, we did it and I got the movie I wanted to make.”John Carpenter on how the studio wanted to change They Live
Changing the capitalists to cannibals would completely undermine the anti-consumerist message of the movie, and highlight how simply accepting the status quo can potentially lead to disastrous consequences. Back in the 80s, when pro-corporate sentiment was at an all-time high, John Carpenter’s message in They Live fell on deaf ears. The film was widely critiqued for its message, though it managed to become a cult hit in the years since then.
The film, which stars “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, is an odd blend of horror, action, and humor. It’s also the source of the oft-repeated catchphrase about kicking a** and chewing bubblegum, but being all out of gum (though the original quote reversed the first two phrases.) While the film didn’t end up spawning multiple sequels like some of John Carpenter’s movies, They Live still holds a major place in pop culture.
Not many people know it, but John Carpenter based They Live on a short story by little-known author Ray Nelson. The story, titled Eight O’Clock in the Morning, is about a man who goes to a hypnotist show, and when the hypnotist told everyone to wake up, he “awoke all the way.” This allowed him to see non-human faces in the crowd, and to be aware of the subliminal messages implanted around the city.
In John Carpenter’s version of They Live, the story surrounds a pair of sunglasses that let the nameless protagonist see similar things as in the original short story. The protagonists of both stories decide to resort to violence in order to fight the control that the aliens have over the world. However, the original story does not have the same anti-capitalist message as the film.
The movie got a follow-up fan film titled They Still Live, released in 2017. It did not involve John Carpenter, though it credits him for creating the characters in They Live. Other than that, however, there has been no follow-up to the original film.
John Carpenter’s other creations besides They Live have had more enduring success. There have so far been thirteen Halloween films, including a quasi-reboot trilogy released from 2018 through 2022. Escape from New York received a sequel in 1996 called Escape from L.A., and there are rumors of a second sequel coming down the line.
Despite the current success of John Carpenter’s franchises, John Carpenter has not actually written or directed a film since 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. He does music for films instead. In the interview with Variety, Carpenter says that he’s happier that way since it lets him do a job, get paid, and go home.